Plans must go to FDOT for approval before changes take shape

Barriers and cones keep motorists from parking freely on Tea Table Key in Islamorada. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

A once-popular daytripping destination in Islamorada will return to a more natural state — a highway with no amenities and no parking. 

During a May 16 workshop, Islamorada council members acted based on results from a survey and public comment over the Fills, directing staff to proceed with plans to remove the current parking on Tea Table Relief, Indian Key Fill and Lignumvitae Key Fill. The dais also supported the idea of ridding the orange cones for a post-and-rope barrier along the highway to keep motorists from pulling off what’s considered a dangerous stretch of road. 

Village officials will need to submit an engineering plan with the changes to the Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the land, for approval before any changes are made. Islamorada currently has a lease to control activity at the Fills, MM 77 to MM 80. The village doesn’t pay anything to FDOT for the lease. 

A village decision to take over the Fills came in 2019 when FDOT came to a temporary compromise that allowed Islamorada officials to dictate parking during busy holidays and weekends. By April 2020, the village council approved a five-year lease with FDOT for full authority of parking and activity on the Fills. It came following years of chaos witnessed alongside the highway. 

Weekends came and went as the Fills were inundated with vehicles, people and trash. Even odors of human feces emanated from the area. Issues at the Fills enraged locals who begged local officials to take action following Memorial Day Weekend in 2019. 

Safety concerns were also raised as people crossed the highway with vehicles traveling at high rates of speed. In 2018, a deadly crash on the Fills killed four tourists from Spain. 

A meeting coordinated by Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay in June 2019 welcomed James Wolfe, then FDOT District 6 secretary, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and other officials to discuss overuse at the Fills. It ultimately led the Florida Department of Transportation to reduce the speed through the Fills from 50 mph to 45 mph in July 2019. Audible striping was also installed to alert drivers when they drift over the center of the road. 

Barbara Edgar, a Lower Matecumbe resident since 1952, told the council during the May 16 workshop that she remembered a time when people would pull off U.S. 1 for a picnic and swim at the Fills before moving on to their ultimate destination. Times changed, however, and so did the Fills from its original stop-and-go spot to a prime daytripping location. 

“It wasn’t on the way to a destination. It became the destination, and that was the real problem,” Edgar said. 

Last month, village residents and property owners had the opportunity to voice their input on the future of the Fills. The push for a survey was led by Vice Mayor Sharon Mahoney, who voiced displeasure with the lack of attention Councilman Henry Rosenthal received from a prior dais over resolving issues at the Fills. 

“I tried for two years to do what we’re doing tonight,” said Rosenthal, who led the workshop. “Vice Mayor Mahoney came onboard and that’s the reason we’re here. Believe me, that’s the reason we’re here.” 

A total of 853 village residents and property owners weighed in over the course of 30 days. And the message was clear through the results, which showed 86% against the idea of picnic tables, launching ramps and other park-like development. A resounding majority — 88% — were against the use of taxpayer dollars for improvements and maintenance at the Fills, which Rosenthal said equates to more than $705,600 between 2018 and 2023. 

With the council agreeing to changes at the Fills, village officials will also examine avenues to address a deteriorating bike path. The village will also look to speak with Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials over a boat ramp on Indian Key and whether that would be re-established for their sole use and/or for the public to use. 

“I think we got it done. That’s the most important thing,” Rosenthal said, adding that the 1,000 orange cones given to the village from FDOT and cement barricades won’t be around much longer.

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.